Myanmar (Burma) is located between India, China, Bangladesh and Thailand, its population is comprised of a distinct ethnic mix of tribal peoples with 135 ethnic groups and ‘eight national races’.
‘The Rohingya people are indigenous to Arakan, the old coastal country of Southeast Asia, now renamed Rakhine. In ancient times a southern branch of the Silk Road connected India, Burma and China with Arakan which became a key centre of maritime trade and cultural exchange for Arab merchants. From the 8th century BC Islamic conversion, intermarriage and settlement led to an increased Muslim Arakan population. The modern day Rohingya believe they descended from these early Muslim communities and ancient Sanskrit inscriptions in the region indicate that the founders of the first Arakanese states were Indian. As Muslims the Rohingya are a minority religious group in Myanmar where Buddhism is practiced by 88% of the population according to the latest government census. Minority groups dispute these figures.
China is the original homeland of the Bamar tribal people of the Dian Kingdom, annexed by China in 109BCE. The Bamar migrated from Central Asia and Tibet around the 9th century and settled in the region which is now northern Burma where they integrated with the native Pyu people. The Bamar people are primarily Buddhist and now comprise 69% of the total population of Myanmar.
In 1784 the Bamar conquered Arakan, resulting in some 35,000 Rohingya fleeing over a fifteen year period into neighbouring British Bengal, to seek protection. Thousands of men were executed by the Burmese military with many of the Arakan population deported to central Burma, leaving their homeland depopulated. The colonial policy of the British in India encouraged waves of Bengali migrants into the area of Arakan to work as farm labourers, primarily due to the requirement for cheap labour to work in the paddy fields.
British commercial and strategic interest in Burma led to war in the mid-1820s. The East India Company, an agent of British colonial power, extended its jurisdiction to Arakan, its armed forces seized the capital Rangoon, defeating the war-elephants and musketeers of the King of Ava. Arakan was annexed by the British in 1824 and administered as a colony by the East India Trading Company. Further wars led to Burmese defeat by the British Raj and the annexation of all of lower Burma in 1852. In 1885 following the British invasion of what was left of the Burmese kingdom the country’s ancient monarchy was abolished and its king exiled to India. Burma was then governed by the British Raj as a province of India, like the Punjab or Bengal, with little or no sensitivity to Burmese culture. As India moved towards independence, Rangoon became increasingly cosmopolitan with the Burmese becoming an excluded minority. By the beginning of the 20th century, Indians were arriving in Burma at the rate of a quarter million per year, equivalent to the United Kingdom today taking 2 million people a year. By 1927, Rangoon exceeded New York City as the greatest immigration port in the world. Indian immigrants formed a majority of the population of the largest cities in Burma, fanning Burmese resentment, nationalism and religious hatred with riots specifically directed against the Indian Muslim community.
Colonial control was interrupted by the Japanese invasion of Burma in 1942 when Arakan became prominent in the conflict. The war resulted in a complete breakdown of civil governance in Burma with Buddhists instigating cruel measures against Muslims. Allied forces were back in control by 1945 but the Burmese, already divided along ethnic and religious lines were impatient for Independence.The British were faced with an unexpected insurgency and thousands of Burmese nationalists fought and died in the guerilla warfare which followed before Burma became independent in 1948, by which time much of the country had been under British rule for nearly a hundred years. Arakan effectively became a colony of Burma.
Following a military coup in 1962 the military junta took power and promptly shut off the country from the outside world. Burma has only emerged from self-imposed isolation in recent years. The Rohingya have been systematically deprived of their political rights since that time. In 1982 New Citizenship law imposed by the military junta excluded Rohingya from the list of 135 national races, stripping them of citizenship.
In 1989 Burma was renamed Myanmar. Arakan State was renamed Rakhine State with identity cards excluding Rohingya. Formerly recognized as an indigenous ethnic nationality of Burma with members of the group serving as representatives in the Burmese parliament and high-ranking government positions, the Rohingya are now stateless, subjected to various forms of extortion and arbitrary taxation; land confiscation; forced eviction house destruction and financial restrictions on marriage. Rohingya have been subjected to routine forced labour to work on military or government projects, arable land, has been confiscated by the military and given to Buddhist settlers. In addition to political persecution in the last four years Rohingya Muslims have been subjected to escalating persecution by an extreme Buddhist sect of monks. The UN describing Rohingya persecution as a crime against humanity.
Aung San Suu Kyi won the Nobel Peace prize for her peaceful resistance to oppression, suffering 15 years house arrest before leading the National League for Democracy to a major win in the first open election of 2015. She has to date failed to speak for the Rohingya people and recently requested at the UN that the name Rohingya should not be used.
The international focus on Myanmar’s religious/ethnic issues has overshadowed the vast land grabs by the government.The past two decades have seen a massive worldwide rise of corporate acquisitions of land for mining, timber, agriculture and water generated by military-economic interests. Myanmar’s natural resources include oil and gas, various minerals, precious stones and gems, timber and forest products, hydropower potential, etc. Of these, natural gas, rubies, jade, and timber logs are the most valuable and currently provide a substantial portion of national income. In 2012 land laws were changed to open the country to foreign investors. Corporate acquisitions were favoured and land allocations increased by 170% between 2010 and 2013. Recently the government allocated 1,268,077 hectares (3,100,000 acres) in the Rohingya area of Myanmar for corporate rural development.
In the Myanmar Census of March 2014 the Burmese government banned the word “Rohingya”. It was reported that the Myanmar government had created a plan to expel the country’s persecuted Muslim minority. Under the proposal, all Rohingya who refuse to identify themselves as “Bengalis” (a term used for illegal migrants from Bangladesh) and do not have documentation acceptable to the government would be detained in camps before being driven out of the country. In 2016 the UN accused Myanmar of ethnic cleansing of the Rohingya, estimating that a million Rohingya refugees will have left Myanmar for Bangladesh by the end of 2017.
Researchers from the International State Crime Initiative at Queen Mary University of London suggest that the Myanmar government is in the final stages of an organised process of genocide against the Rohingya.